By Joe Welklin
Editor’s note: Science Outside does not encourage the capture of any wild animals, especially those with large claws. Please leave animal capture and rehabilitation to the experts.
I have an idea of what you’re thinking: “why would anyone want to catch a koala?”. Which is probably quickly followed by “are they as furry and cuddly as they look?”. The answer to your second, and possibly more important question, is yes. They are quite furry. Cuddly though, it depends. But before we get into that you need to know that throughout their range of Eastern Australia, Koala populations are declining. One of the more bizarre reasons for this decline is chlamydia; the same sexually transmitted infection that infects humans, but a different strain of the disease. Combined with an extremely common retrovirus that takes out their immune system, scientists believe chlamydia is behind much of the population decline in koala populations we’re seeing today.
But there is hope! Chlamydia in Koalas can be treated. Now does that answer your first question?
Roger and Megan, the landlords for the guesthouse we were staying in while conducting bird research were always keeping a close eye on the koalas that lived on their wooded property in southeastern Queensland. If you think your koala has chlamydia, and there are some clear signs, you’re advised to call an animal rehabber or a koala care expert who will catch and treat your koala for you.
When Roger determined that one of their koalas was showing clear signs of chlamydia we were sad, but also a little excited. Only there was one problem. A really tall problem. Well, lots of really tall problems. Koalas are very good climbers, and Roger and Megan’s property was full of really tall trees. So we had to wait for a good opportunity when the koala was down low enough that we could call the koala catcher to come get it.
Finally, one evening we were just about to go to bed when Roger strolled down to the guesthouse in his business slacks and tie and announced that the koala was low in a tree just off the driveway and he had called the koala catcher!
I grew up watching nature programs hosted by Steve Irwin – the Crocodile Hunter – so as a tourist in Australia, naturally I was expecting the koala catcher to be a rugged naturalist clad in short khaki shorts, a matching button-up field shirt, and a dashing smile. But the image that walked up the driveway towards us did not look like Steve Irwin.
What Marge lacked in stature, she made up for in spunk and humor. Immediately after exchanging pleasantries under the light of headlamps shining into each other’s faces, Marge explained to us that she was a war-baby – she was a child in England during World War II when basic food resources were in short supply and therefore her growth was stunted, leaving her vertically challenged for life.
So there we were, a motley crew made up of a war-baby, two bird researchers who knew little to nothing about koalas, Roger still in his business attire, and one poor sick koala.
Our hearts were racing, but the catching began pretty slowly. Tyler, my fellow bird researcher, and I were presented with long poles that had flashy ribbons on the top and thick, elbow length gloves. Our job was to move the koala lower in the tree so either Tyler and I could grab it or Marge could get it into a very large fishing net she was wielding. The koala was just out of reach of our poles so Roger backed his pickup truck down the driveway so Tyler and I could stand in the back of it to get a little bit higher.
With a bit of vigorous shaking of our poles, the koala began to come lower and lower in the tree. But the lower it got, the louder it got, and the larger its claws appeared. It quickly transformed from being a cute and cuddly, docile creature, into a terrified beast fearing for its life, huffing and puffing and grunting and growling with all the ferocity of a cornered bull.
Between competing directions coming from Marge and Roger, no one really knew what the best course of action was, we got the koala low enough in the tree that Marge might be within striking distance. But as the koala came down to within a meter and a half off of the ground, it scooted around to the backside of the tree where the ground dropped off onto a 45-degree slope that offered unstable footing.
But Marge, being the spunky woman that she was, didn’t let that stop her. In a flash, she stepped up to the edge of the driveway, leaned out over the slope and quickly netted the koala! Sort of. She placed the net around the grunting beast on the tree and we thought we had it.
But it just sat there. It held onto the tree, didn’t let go, and didn’t fall into the net.
Two seconds of utter confusion followed, I swear time slowed down. I looked at Marge, Marge looked at Tyler, Tyler looked at Roger, and Roger shrugged.
No one knew what to do.
Finally, the koala looked at the net, grunted once more, and engaged every single muscle in its sinewy legs in a way that would have left an Olympic jumper standing in awe. In a single swift and powerful motion, it launched itself off the back of the tree with the force of a rocket, immediately making contact with the back of the net, and nearly pulling an already-compromised Marge out over the slope and down the hill. She had no choice but to drop the net.
Being the next closest, I jumped to the driveway from the pickup truck but landed just in time to watch the net role down the slope with the koala in it for a couple of rotations, before the angry animal burst from the open net and scrambled up the next tree, up and out of view into the darkness of the night.
“Well that could have gone better” someone said. Tyler and I kind of awkwardly laughed, still in awe of what we had just seen, Marge apologized, and Roger was disappointed we couldn’t help the koala.
So that folks, is how not to catch a koala. But the story does have a happy ending! A couple weeks later Roger found the koala walking on the ground and was able to catch it and get it to the rehabber, so it did receive treatment in the end.
*Edited for privacy, Marge is not her real name.
Footage of a healthy koala climbing a tree on Roger and Megan’s property. Look at those claws! Video by Joe Welklin
Joe received his bachelor’s degree from Indiana University, where he entered as a freshman with his sights set on a biology degree and a strong desire to work with animals. After discovering mid-way through that researching birds was a viable career, he jumped into research and hasn’t looked back since. Today he’s a graduate student at Cornell University studying fairy-wrens in Australia. For more on his research visit: www.josephwelklin.com